Key players will just have time to wash the jock-strap and read the Air Miles statement before setting off for the subcontinent

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The sudden departure of summer is a downer for the County Championship, which now seems certain to follow the Test series along the path from high drama to thumping anticlimax. But from another point of view, bad weather is just what English cricket needs. England's regulars - and thanks to the Illingworth-Atherton axis, we now have some - are in much the same state as the average lawn.

Two weeks ago, they reached the end of the longest series ever staged between England and the West Indies, whose fast bowlers make them the most gruelling of all opponents. Within a month, they will be on the night flight to Johannesburg, beginning a 14-week tour of South Africa.

Since the South Africans returned to Test cricket in 1992, nobody has played a five-Test series against them. Since the World Cup began 20 years ago, England have never played a five-Test series in the same season as the World Cup. So what is happening this winter?

England are playing five Tests in South Africa, and then going to the World Cup. And the tournament is happening in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which means heavy travel, and if England's last visit to the region is anything to go by, a certain amount of pressure on the digestive system.

Oh, and in between there is a one-day tournament featuring England and South Africa. Fair enough: you need a warm-up for a World Cup. Except that this is more like a cool-down after the Test series.

The fifth Test ends on 6 January, the one-dayers come straight after it, and there are not three of them, or five, but seven - the first seven- match series in England cricket history, as far as I have been able to ascertain from the collected works of Bill Frindall. Bill doesn't have a section headed "Most Knackering Itineraries", although the way things are going, he soon will.

Predictions are a mug's game in cricket, but I think we can hazard a guess that when the sporting highlights of 1996 come to be assembled, the seventh one-dayer between England and South Africa will not be among them.

Then the key players come back home - for two weeks. They will just have time to wash the jock-strap, read the Air Miles statement and meet any children that may have been born in their absence, before setting off for the subcontinent - where they will need a few more warm-up games if they're going to be ready for the tournament-opener against New Zealand on 14 February.

Another prediction can safely be ventured: by mid-March, England's best players will be even wearier than they are now. At this point, the Test and County Cricket Board, which agrees all England's itineraries, would doubtless argue that the winter of 1995-96 is an exceptional one, and that the return of the South Africans, welcome as they are, has inevitably added to the general congestion.

And I would reply, well, yes, but the forthcoming fiasco is, in the words of Tom Jones, not unusual.

One of the mysteries of modern cricket is why Graham Gooch's England were so good against the West Indies and so hopeless against Australia. The answer may lie in the itineraries.

When Gooch's team set off for the Caribbean in 1990, they had just had four months off, not counting the Nehru Cup in India or the (more arduous) training sessions at Lilleshall.

When they flew to Australia nine months later, they had had a further three weeks off. The lesson was blindingly obvious: if you want to win the Ashes, don't keep going to Australia within six months of returning from the West Indies. But four years later, the exact same mistake was made again.

I suspect the only thing saving Mike Atherton from total exhaustion is the fact that he's not captain of Lancashire. The better he has played for England, the worse, on the whole, have been his county performances.

This is not to criticise him for a moment. He loves playing for Lancashire, and for them - as for England - he can turn it on when it matters, making 90 in a cup final, or that 61 down the order when they were struggling against Yorkshire in mid-August. His average for Lancashire since he became England captain is the wrong side of 30. If he was county captain too, the strain might well be too much.

None of the counties in contention for honours is led by an England regular. Allan Lamb has only been a good captain of Northamptonshire since being pensioned off at Test level. Alec Stewart, for all his drive and loyalty, has been unable to break Surrey's habit of underachievement.

At the start of the season, even in the middle of it, both Stewart and Alan Wells were viewed as rivals to Atherton. Their counties' struggles, combined with England's improvement, have seen them off. A couple of county captaincies are vacant at the moment: anyone with ambition should not apply.

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